In Flanders Fields the Poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Today is a very special day aboard Tauck’s beautiful new ms Inspire, as we wind our way towards Brussels as part of this Belgium & Holland in Spring river cruise itinerary. Not only do we get to visit Antwerp, we’re setting out this evening on one of the premiere events on this itinerary: a journey to Ieper (Ypres) and the moving In Flanders Fields Museum.
In Antwerp, I took the opportunity to get together with a good friend of mine – Mr. Mike Louagie, editor of SHIPPAX CFI and founder of the wonderful website Black, Blue, Green – and a Touch of Pink. After a delicious Belgian breakfast at the STORM restaurant near the river Mas, we set out on a photography exploration of this fascinating city.
Some images from my photo-book this morning:
Guests participating in Tauck’s included tour of Antwerp could embark on a fantastic walking tour of the city, followed by a visit to the newly-opened Red Star Line Museum and a Belgian beer tasting. Belgium makes some of the world’s best beers, and though German readers may disagree with me (their beers are damn good, too), I really enjoy Belgian kreik – Cherry Beer.
This afternoon, however, Tauck’s Belgium & Holland in Spring itinerary shone at its brightest. It would take us two hours by motorcoach to reach Ypres from Antwerp, but I would have sat for twice the distance to experience this most memorable of evenings.
They called it “The War to End all Wars.” For the town of Ieper, or Ypres, World War I was certainly the case: the town was almost completely razed by continuous battle. Today, it has been meticulously rebuilt brick-by-brick to reflect the way it appeared prior to the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914. By the fall, it was clear that the town stood in the way of advancing German forces, which led to the First Battle of Ypres on October 19, 1914. Two more battles would leave the town in tatters.
The confusion over the town’s name stems from the fact that during WWI, only French was used on official Belgian war documents – Ypres. Ieper is the official Dutch name of the town, but to this day, Ypres is most commonly used.
As we arrived shortly after 5:30p.m., the brilliant sunlight made Ieper glow with this sort of ambient light that showcased the beauty of the architecture and the people of Ieper. But it also made it difficult to understand the events that took place here a century ago.
We were here for one of Tauck’s Exclusive Events – a private, after-hours tour of the In Flanders Fields museum, followed by a private dinner in the historic Cloth Hall that was originally built in the 13th Century, and which was meticulously rebuilt using German reparation funds after the war. The entire complex was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
The museum is as haunting as it is technologically advanced. Artifacts from every aspect of the war are present here, and visitors are given an interactive ‘poppy bracelet’ programmed with their nationality to display information relevant to them at interactive waypoints along the way.
There are also ‘black rooms’ – areas tucked away on sides of the main exhibits that tastefully display some of the more graphic horrors of war. Photography was still in its infancy in 1914, but it was used for the first time in WWI to devastating effect as both documentation and propaganda.
Videotaped actors projected onto LCD screens add a haunting feel to the museum. I watched, moved, as a British and German actor sang ‘Silent Night’ quietly and solemnly as the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 was described. Overhead, a droning soundtrack enhanced the feeling of hopelessness and doom that accompanied the futility of their battles.
I think we’d all like to imagine ourselves as ‘the brave one’ – the soldier that earns himself a medal of honour for an incredible act of valour and selflessness. But the truth is that we scarcely have any idea how we would act in that situation – or how, if we lived, we’d come back.
In one of the so-called ‘black rooms’, photographs of disfigured soldiers were mounted to the ceiling. But it wasn’t their injuries that affected me most; it was the look in their eyes. A look that said they knew that, no matter what they were told, that love was now impossible. Resigned to his fate, he stared into the lens of that camera a century ago and once again put on his bravest face, aware of the possibility that friends, family and lovers would no longer look at him the same way. He served his country, he served the citizens of the world, and he would pay the ultimate price for the remainder of his time on this bitter Earth.
Each wore the muted look of a man who had known nothing but disappointment and pain.
It’s heavy stuff; sacrifices and events that I doubt any of us today can comprehend. Our definition of a bad day – according to the printed newspaper I read onboard the ms Inspire this morning – is when Instagram goes down. And what do we do? We take to some other online medium to vent our frustrations about a digital age that, we feel, has done us wrong.
But, in an odd way, my visit to the Flanders Fields museum in Ipres made me more appreciative of what we have in 2014. We have instantaneous access to all the information we could ever want. We have freedom – mostly. We have tolerance – mostly.
Yet, as I write this, I cannot help but wonder if people thought these very same things on April 13, 1914.
Tauck is famous for creating unique events that set their tours apart, but our evening at the In Flanders Fields Museum has surpassed them all – even the ones I experienced on the company’s striking Blue Danube itinerary, which were admittedly phenomenal. Memorable and moving, it was also unique: Tauck is only visiting the museum on a handful of sailings this year, to commemorate the centenary of the start of World War I. I’d personally love to see Tauck offer this excursion until 2018 – the anniversary of the end of World War I.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t close by mentioning Canadian John McCrae’s 1915 poem, In Flanders Fields. As a child, reciting it in school meant nothing to me. How could it possibly? The horrors of war are lost upon a generation that has never known hardship. Today – on this day – it means everything:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Tauck's MS Inspire - Belgium & Holland
|April 7, 2014||Amsterdam, Netherlands||Arrive Amsterdam; Embark Tauck's new ms Inspire|
|April 8||Amsterdam, Netherlands||Private river cruise through Amsterdam's Canals; visit the Rijksmuseum; tour Keukenhof Gardens|
|April 9||Hoorn, Netherlands / Enkhuizen, Netherlands||Walking tour of Hoorn or visit to Alkmaar. Walking tour of Enkhuizen & open-air Zuiderzee Museum.|
|April 10||Arnhem, Netherlands||Choice of tours - De Hoge Veluwe National Park exploration with Vincent Van Gogh at the Kroller-Muller Museum, or tour sites associated with the WWII airborne assault on Arnhem.|
|April 11||Rotterdam, Netherlands||Tour of Rotterdam & its museums, or optional excursion to the historic city of Delft.|
|April 12||Veere, Netherlands / Middleburg, Netherlands.||Exploration of Veere or excursion to Neeltje Jans Delta Works to learn about the country's storm surge barriers. In Middleburg, enjoy time exploring on own.|
|April 13||Antwerp, Belgium / Ypres||Orientation walking tour through Antwerp's historic city center & visit the Red Star Line museum. After lunch, Tauck Exclusive tour to Flanders to observe the centennial of World War I with dinner and a private visit to the In Flanders Fields museum.|
|April 14||Antwerp, Belgium / Hasselt, Belgium / Maastricht, Netherlands||Drive to Margraten to see the Netherlands American Cemetery. Tauck Exclusive Lunch at Chateau Neercanne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Guided visit to Maastricht & free time in the Old Town.|
|April 15||Brussels, Belgium||Disembark ms Inspire & travel to Brussels for a full day of sightseeing. Overnight at the Hotel Amigo.|
|April 16||Brussels, Belgium||Onward journey home.|